On 20 November 2020, the court largely agreed with the Public Prosecution Service and sentenced Jos B. to twelve years and six months in prison. But what if B. had been acquitted? What if the judges had said there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him? Public prosecutor Dave Mattheijs (50) has been working on Nicky Verstappen’s case (see box for more information) since May 2017, together with his colleague Paul Emmen. “Can you imagine: a dead child on whose body more than twenty traces of one man’s DNA have been found, a man with a history of sex crimes, and failing to put him behind bars?”
It would’ve been a nightmare. For him, his colleague and the team of detectives involved, but above all for Peter and Berthie Verstappen, Nicky’s parents, he says. “If our construction of the facts had ended up resulting in acquittal… Well, all I can say is that confidence in the justice system would have taken a huge hit.” The accused could still be acquitted – although Mattheijs thinks this is very unlikely – as both the Public Prosecution Service and the defence are appealing the decision.
“We normally refuse all requests”, was his first response to Observant by email, in mid-November. But the setup of the interview convinced him. Mattheijs is involved in the course Criminalistics and Forensic DNA in the master’s programme Forensics, Criminology and Law of the Faculty of Law at Maastricht University. What was his 2020 like? What did he learn? What could students learn from this case? How did he deal with the pressure from society, the persistent media attention? How does he keep his life and his work separate?
An interview in his office followed in early December.
Mattheijs was born in in Maastricht. He grew up in Landgraaf, Limburg, but returned to Maastricht in 1988 to study law. Did he always want to become a public prosecutor? He relates an anecdote by way of an answer: “When I was a teenager, I started playing in a rock/metal band with some friends. I sang, wrote songs and played guitar. At some point, when I was already in university, we were interviewed by the local broadcasting station. They asked me where I would be in ten years. I said, ‘Public prosecutor or rock star.’ Unfortunately, I became the former.”
The band no longer exists, but he still has a passion for music and electric guitars. “Early this year, I finally registered myself at the Chamber of Commerce. I now officially have a business that buys, maintains and sells guitars. I love tinkering with them.” But it remains little more than a hobby. “There’s no money in it.”
His guitar hobby occasionally helps him switch off and take his mind off work. “But I’m generally quite good at letting it go.” To relax, he goes on mini-breaks to the Eifel, where he owns a small house. “It’s an old house. When I feel like it, I work on it. There isn’t much else to do there. Did you know that the Eifel has the worst 3G and 4G coverage in all of Europe? We used our neighbours’ Internet for a while, but sadly, they have moved. You really can’t reach me when I’m there.”
He bought the house years ago. His sons from a previous relationship, who are now eighteen and twenty years old, no longer go there with him. His partner Hanneke does. He shares everything with her – well, almost everything. He had to keep some things about the investigation from her, too. “I’ve learnt to give short answers when I have to, like ‘We’re working on it’ or ‘The DNA research is still ongoing’. Someone else recently asked me if keeping silent wasn’t difficult, but I didn’t feel like it was. I was in a bubble, in a team of people who all knew about it. I could talk about it with them.”
Mattheijs still works for the Faculty of Law, but he is no longer an employee. He was, until recently, but “at some point, I became coordinator of the course. That wasn’t for me at all, all that paperwork in an organisation I’m not familiar with. I like the contents of the course, I like sharing my knowledge, I like being in a different environment for a little while, but because the course was planned in February and March, I had to pay attention to it almost full-time in those moments. I could no longer combine it with my work for the Public Prosecution Service.” An academic career isn’t for him anyway, he says. “I love the variation. I want to be close to the fire.”
Nicky Verstappen’s case certainly involved variation. “They pulled out all the stops. It included the largest DNA harvesting operation in Dutch history and a search for Jos B. in the Vosges, followed by an arrest in Spain.” The impact of the case was also unprecedented, he says. “Although I’ve worked on cases involving even more serious crimes, this was about a child who went on summer camp and was found dead.” It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
Everyone in the Netherlands knows about the case. “It has always drawn attention. I think we spent 20 per cent of our time on this case on questions from journalists. Which ones would and wouldn’t we answer? We always had to find a balance in it. Even in moments when we couldn’t talk to the press, because it would impede the investigation, articles came out anyway. They always found an angle.” At the same time, the Public Prosecution Service sometimes needed the media. For example, a press conference was held because a DNA match with B. had been found, but B. couldn’t be found. His name and photos of him were widely published.
This spring, courthouses in the Netherlands were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The trial was postponed to autumn. “It was perhaps most frustrating for Nicky’s family. It meant they had to wait even longer.” Speaking of frustration, how does it feel when the accused remains silent when you, the public prosecutor, are convinced that he has the answers? “When I took on this case, I had only one goal: telling the story of what had happened on Brunssummerheide. Nicky’s parents have a right to know. But tragically, we still don’t.” B. only made a statement once, in a video message.
B. claims to have found Nicky when he was already dead. Mattheijs thinks this is utter nonsense. “He claims to have touched Nicky to see if he was still breathing, if he still had a pulse, and to straighten his clothing. But that doesn’t explain how his DNA ended up on that underwear. The defence is always trying to create doubt. They can see the speck of dust on the wall and the parakeet in the corner, but they overlook the elephant dancing on the table” – the elephant being a metaphor for the DNA evidence that can’t be denied, according to Mattheijs.
“It hasn’t been proved that you killed Nicky on purpose”, said one of the judges to B. while delivering the judgement. “But your actions did cause his death.” This might have been an accidental consequence of B. putting his hand over Nicky’s mouth or lying on top of him, putting pressure on his chest. The Public Prosecution Service disagrees with this. “We believe that some degree of intent can be proved”, says Mattheijs.
Related to this, he has noticed a trend in the courtroom: “If we are to believe the defence in quite a few criminal cases, there seems to be a shift from evidence that is legal and convincing to evidence that is legal and incontrovertible. It’s like we will soon have to submit a film that makes clear what exactly happened from minute to minute in order to convict anyone.”
In Nicky’s case, DNA is “sufficient legal evidence that is convincing” to also convict the accused for the boy’s death, believes Mattheijs. This is an important point that he would like to point out to students. He wants them to learn how to interpret the results of forensic investigations and how forensic traces, like DNA, can serve as evidence. “With forensic evidence, the emphasis is on the source of the material. But since the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seems increasingly to be about the activity, about proving how the material got there. We have to be careful not to go overboard with this,” he warns.
Mattheijs is a down-to-earth person, someone who has both feet on the ground. He can be tough when he needs to be, but the opposite is also true. “Put on a sentimental film and I’ll start crying”, he laughs. Then, seriously: “Some of my conversations with Nicky’s family really affected me. I once asked them when this would be over for them, but I've realised that it’ll never really be over for them. But I so think they deserve to move forward with their lives.”
He would rather not talk about himself, but he knows all too well that life is fragile. He has also suffered setbacks. Some time ago, he was seriously ill. “It taught me to better put things into perspective. I’ve always been focused on my career, always wanted to get ahead. And I still want to. But there are so many things that are more important than work.” When asked what he has learnt in 2020, he replies concisely: “Just keep going.” Last week, he spoke with Nicky’s family. “We concluded that persistence pays off. You can ‘force’ luck."